The Artist Within: Painting Patriotism


This fall’s Emmanuel Voices blog series, The Artist Within, explores the intersections between creativity & art, and our personal & public lives. This first entry, Painting Patriotism, is by watercolorist & parishioner Hayes Willingham.

U.S. Capitol, Hayes Willingham

I was recently asked to share a piece of artwork and the story behind it for our church blog. The most emotional piece I’ve made this year for me, personally,  is the U.S. Capitol, which I painted in January 2021. On January 6th, my husband had a doctor’s appointment at Walter Reed. My mother-in-law called me because she was worried, “There’s a rally downtown and it’s supposed to get bad. What time is his appointment?” I naively dismissed her concerns.  “It will be fine,” I assured her. I hadn’t been following this particular rally on the news, but protests are frequent here. It’s just a way of life in D.C.  I stood in horror (and anger) watching live coverage a few hours later, baffled at what I was seeing:  this mass of people waving flags, threatening harm to those inside, breaking windows and doors, violently clashing with police and members of Congress being hurried out of the main chamber, as they were trying to certify the election. My husband called to tell me he was on his way home. He asked me to lock the doors and not to go outside because the governor had just issued a stay-at-home order. 

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. It is always a difficult day, but after the collective grief we have experienced because of Covid-19 and the events of January 6th, it was harder this year. On 9/11, the high-jackers had purportedly planned to crash one of the planes into the U.S. Capitol, but were foiled by the passengers and it instead crashed in the countryside of Pennsylvania, close to Shanksville. During the coverage yesterday, I heard a news story about the families of those who died on United Airlines Flight 93 and how January 6th had been retraumatizing for them. Their family members had died trying to protect this symbol of American democracy and to save others. 

Thinking about the heroic actions of Americans who gave it all on United 93, I can’t imagine how horrible it must have been for the relatives of those victims to see American citizens nearly 20 years later seeking to overtake the Capital, threatening the lives of the people in it; hurting those trying to protect it. The threats to our country now are probably more insidious than they were in 2001. They comprise rampant misinformation, belief in conspiracy theories, and escape into echo chambers, which serves to divide us needlessly and to erode the norms that comprise and ground our society. I’ve been so saddened and angry this year, but I’m still hopeful. My husband and I came to DC to serve our country–its that hope of service, a moral clarity, and doing something beyond ourselves that compelled us to do it.  The insurrection of January 6 seems even more shameful reflecting on the 20 year anniversary of 9/11. I pray to feel less angry and to feel more empathy towards others. We don’t have to agree on everything, but some middle ground needs to be found–something I believe is intrinsic to the American experiment.  I don’t know the answers to these problems, but I know we need to do better. We need to do better for our country, our children, our future, our allies, and our democracy. Please pray for me, pray for our country, pray for our allies, and I will pray for you. 

Spirituality Storytelling The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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